Behavior-Based Safety Programs-Will They Work for You?

Behavior-based safety (BBS) programs are on a mission to eliminate preventable injuries at work sites everywhere.  BBS is a process in which management and employees work together to continually focus people’s attention and actions on theirs, and others, daily safety behavior.  By focusing greater attention on how employees work and devising safe alternatives to high-risk actions, behavior-based safety programs protect people, productivity and profitability.

However, even something as benign-sounding as a comprehensive safety program is not without its critics. Let’s look at both sides of BBS programs so interested parties know what to expect when they bring similar initiatives to their facilities.

Pro: BBS engages workers

Safety directly impacts workers. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. businesses reported 2.9 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses and 4,836 fatal injuries in 2015. With small changes to procedure, perhaps many of these injuries could have been avoided.

BBS programs act as common ground between upper management and rank-and-file equipment operators or line workers. Both are looking for simple methods of production that decrease risk. When workers are included in how companies develop safety measures and why these changes feel less like an edict sent down from on high and more like a cooperative effort.

Con: BBS blames workers (if not fully implemented)

Critics of BBS programs say they unfairly target workers, a claim that has merit in certain instances. If a BBS program starts and ends with a list of actions employees are required to carry out under penalty of reprimand or termination, implementers have missed the point of BBS entirely.

Unsafe activity at the worksite does not happen in a vacuum. Employees who put themselves at risk do not normally do so without cause. Perhaps they lack training or clear information regarding how exactly their methods put them in jeopardy. Maybe managers haven’t made crucial resources available to them. Whatever the case may be, the objective of BBS programs is and should always be a search for the root cause of dangerous actions, not a blame game.

Pro: BBS supports modern accountability

BBS programs encourage efficient recordkeeping practices across key safety metrics, the information from which is then fed into continuous improvement and organizational change models. Organizations keep track of key BBS metrics such as percent safe (the number of safe observations / the number of observations) to track their safety progress over time and can hone in on behaviors that have a higher percentage of unsafe behaviors (the number of unsafe observations / the number of observations).

Organizations can then implement programs, procedures, or hazard controls to improve unsafe behaviors and put the BBS data to real-world use in protecting their workers.

Con: Quality of BBS data is suspect

BBS programs require organizations to manage significant amounts of data to allow for analyzing safe and unsafe behaviors.  If an organization with 200 employees implements a behavior-based safety program which requires each employee to conduct an observation once a week and at each observation an employee reviews five behaviors; this behavior based program quickly adds up to 1,000 data points a week, or 52,000 behavior based safety observation data points in a year.  Large complex organizations may have many more BBS data points to analyze.

Organizations without simple and easy to use tools for collecting and analyzing their observational safety data often fall behind on collecting and analyzing their data.  Employees conducting observations may also face fatigue in conducting observations or in entering their results without easy to use data entry tools.  Without a continuous stream of high-quality data, a key part of the observation feedback loop is missing and a company’s BBS program may lose steam and effectiveness.  Or to quote a common data system phrase – “Garbage in / Garbage Out”.